What’s the Deal with Active Play?

Mother holding hands of daughters and jumping down couch

To learn more about the benefits of engaging your kids in play that’s active–as opposed to plopped in front of a screen–we talked to Diane H. Craft, PhD, co-author (with Craig Smith) of the book Active Play! Fun Physical Activities for Young Children, and co-producer of the accompanying Telly Award-winning DVD of the same title. She’s also on the faculty of the Physical Education Department at State University of New York at Cortland, and has been working for over a decade to improve physical activity opportunities for preschoolers.

We spoke with her about the importance of physical movement and active play in the lives of young children.

What is active play?

It’s when children are moderately to vigorously physically active in a fun and enjoyable way. They’re getting their heart rates elevated, and possibly breathing a bit harder and perspiring a little bit. Active play could be free play, where children are on the swings or running around the playground, and developing their own idea of play. It also could be structured physical activity, which is what I have been emphasizing in my work. That’s where the adult has in mind a specific activity and suggests playing it with their child to help practice a variety of skills. Both are extremely important. Children of various ages can engage in active play, but my studies have focused on those between 18 months and 5 years.

How is active play different than sport?

Sports have rules, equipment, and teams. Sport is great but, developmentally, young children are not of an age to be playing sport. If there are winners and losers, or the activity involves skills way beyond the ability of the child, the activity will be discouraging and not fun. This is the age we want children to be encouraged to love physical activity. Most children have an innate love for movement and we need to keep that fire burning.

What are the benefits of active play?

Children benefit from being physically active because they’re developing more mature fundamental movement skills. They’re learning how to throw, run, catch, kick, jump, hop, gallop, and slide in an efficient way. These skills lay the foundation for the sports and recreation activities that will come later on. Also, when we’re physically active, we’re burning calories, and reducing the risk of obesity and heart disease. Cognitively, brain research is showing that when we’re moving, we’re forming new connections in our brain and learning. Also, active play has the potential to help children become more confident movers, and practice cooperating with others.

How do most children currently play, and how does this affect their health?

Children are mainly playing in a sedentary way: playing games on the computer, watching videos, playing video games. The data shows that children are engaged with screens at least four hours a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day for preschoolers and no screen time whatsoever for any child under two years of age.

This sedentary behavior leads to overweight and obesity. Sedentary children also develop less skill in moving. When we have choices, we do what we enjoy and what we are good at. If children have not had a lot of experience moving, then they opt out of physical activity. This can even affect their social status at school. Some studies show that children who are the better movers when they start kindergarten are more popular.

What is an example or two of structured active play?

A game called “Clean up the floor.” You have a dividing line across the living room, and an equal numbers of socks on both sides—lots of socks. The children on each side try to get all of the socks over to the other side. There’s no winner because the purpose is to practice throwing, not to have a winner. And because they’re socks, they’re not likely to break the TV screen or knock over the lamp.

Or you could play “Matching socks.” Here, you place one sock from each pair in one part of the room or house, and the other sock from each pair in another part of the room or house. You choose one sock and then the child tries to find the one that matches the one in your hand. This is good for learning movement skills as the child is running from one place to the other to try and find the sock, but there’s also the cognitive part: The child learns what a match is, and how to distinguish different sizes, colors, patterns, and textures.

Tell us about your book.

My book, Active Play, is filled with ideas for structured active play that parents and children 18 months to five years old can play together. It’s written for childcare providers in family childcare settings but the info transfers beautifully to parents and children in their own homes. We use only inexpensive equipment that’s readily available, like socks, hula hoops, pie tins, and laundry baskets. There’s also a DVD included that shows children doing 30 of the 52 activities in the book.

How can parents encourage more active play in their kids’ lives?

Putting on music is a great way to prompt physical activity. And at the playground, instead of sitting and watching the children play, get up and play with them. Playing together helps parents to bond with the child, and it helps keep the parent in shape, too!